Monthly Archives: December 2017

UMass Amherst students contribute to dragon genome project

Can dragons get cancer? Students in Dr. Ludmila Tyler’s Biochemistry Molecular Genetics and Genomics course at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst asked this question last semester. As part of their course work, they used our Geniverse software to study dragon genetics and develop new genes, mutant alleles, and phenotypes based on investigations of scientific literature. They imagined the genotypic and phenotypic possibilities for the fictional drake, the model species in Geniverse. Drakes are essentially miniature dragons, so students can take what they learn about drakes and apply it to dragons just as scientists study model species like mice to learn about human genetic disease.

We recently revealed the science behind the genes of Geniverse. Thanks to Dr. Tyler’s students, the dragon genome has the potential to expand in exciting ways.

  • Some drakes now have a high-frequency acoustic sensitivity, which gives them the ability to navigate and forage using sound waves—thanks to research conducted by Nicholas Fordham and Thomas Riley Potter. They focused on the SLC26A5 gene, which encodes Prestin, a protein that functions in the membrane of cochlear outer hair cells and is involved in auditory function. In bats and dolphins, a change in one amino acid in the Prestin protein allows for echolocation.
  • A form of dwarfism called achondroplosia was introduced to the drake genome by Brian Kim, Danny McSweeney, and Jared Stone. The group identified research showing a connection between short-limbed dwarfism and one altered amino acid in the FGFR3 transmembrane protein receptor expressed in bone-building cells. They created a drake with short stature due to a heterozygous genotype, containing a single mutated allele; the wild-type homozygous recessive genotype would result in an average-sized drake while a homozygous dominant genotype would result in the death of the drake offspring.
  • The MaSp1 gene now enables drakes to secrete and shoot silk from their mouths (for example, to capture prey or build a home). Brandon Hancock and Mitch Kimber researched the MaSp1 fibroin protein across several spider species to look for areas of gene conservation.
  • Drakes may now be resistant to cancerous tumors, thanks to research by Evan Smith and Kaitlyn Barrack, who added the TP53 tumor-suppressor gene. The gene encodes the p53 protein, which acts as a major tumor suppressant in many different organisms.

We’re excited that these students and other members of the class have extended the database of drake genes, and we’d love to be able to incorporate them in Geniverse software in the future.

Try Geniverse now. What additions to the dragon genome would you like to see?

Dashboard helps teachers understand student progress and performance in genetics game

Our dragon genetics games have engaged thousands of students for many years. In that time, teachers have asked for an easy way to track their students’ progress and performance. Until now, teacher reports have been difficult to pull out of our system and impossible to parse in real time. The GeniGUIDE project, in partnership with North Carolina State University, is developing a teacher dashboard to accompany our new Geniventure software. We are currently piloting the beta version of this dashboard in multiple classrooms in Maine, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.

“A dashboard is a visual display of the most important information needed to achieve one or more objectives that has been consolidated on a single computer screen so it can be monitored at a glance.” – Stephen Few

Our dashboard displays information processed by an Intelligent Tutoring System (ITS) integrated into Geniventure. As students complete challenges in the game, they are rewarded with different color crystals for their accomplishments (Figure 1). Students who complete a challenge efficiently and without mistakes receive a blue-green crystal. Those who make a small number of missteps receive a yellow crystal while those with more mistakes receive a red. A black “try again” crystal is given to a student with too many mistakes to move on. As students level up through the missions, the ITS builds a model of conceptual understanding of specific learning goals. As student performance on these concepts improves over time, evidence that they have a solid understanding grows stronger.

Figure 1. Student view within Geniventure of the colored crystals (bottom of screen).

Our preliminary teacher dashboard design (Figure 2) was guided by three factors. First, we looked back at our many years of classroom observations of teachers who implemented our suite of dragon genetics games—from our most recent Geniverse to GeniGames and BioLogica—and asked: What information could have helped teachers better facilitate student use of the game? Second, we examined recent dashboard designs implemented in prior Concord Consortium projects to help us distinguish between in-class and after-class use. Finally, we looked at other teacher dashboards that are currently available on the market.

Figure 2. Beta version of Geniventure teacher dashboard.

During the pilot testing, we’re closely observing how teachers use the primary view of the dashboard, which provides information on both student progress and performance during class time. We hope to answer the following questions:

  • Can the teacher adequately track student progress through the game?
  • When do teachers intervene and when do they allow students to struggle? (Do teachers first help those students with black or red crystals?)
  • Do teachers look at how many attempts a student made at a challenge?
  • If teachers notice that particular students are ahead of the class, what actions do they take?

The dashboard also displays a graphical representation of student understanding of genetics concepts highlighted in the game. Some concepts are directly related to specific student actions (e.g., two recessive alleles are required to produce a recessive trait) while others are calculated based on performance across certain challenge types (e.g., genotype to phenotype mapping). The teacher can delve deeper into these secondary reports to view not only individual student data (Figure 3), but also aggregated class data (Figure 4). Through classroom observations and interviews with teachers, we hope to determine:

  • Do teachers have the time and bandwidth to make sense of the concept understanding graphs during class?
  • To what extent do the concept graphs help teachers understand where individual students, or the entire class, are having trouble?
  • What action, if any, do teachers take based on the concept graphs?

Figure 3. Display of individual student’s conceptual understanding.

Figure 4. Representation of class average conceptual understanding.

As our ITS becomes more sophisticated, we plan to widen the concepts we track and make better use of student data to inform teachers.

How do you make use of dashboards? Let us know what features you’d like to see as we improve our ITS-enhanced dashboard.

Energy2D used as a simulation tool in astrobiology research

Fig. 1: Frasassi Caves, Italy (credit: Astrobiology)
Deposition of minerals in caves may be affected by microbes. Geochemical analysis of these minerals can reveal biosignatures of subsurface life on a planet such as the Mars. Research in this area can help NASA build subsurface life probes for future planetary missions.

Fig. 2: Energy2D simulations (credit: Astrobiology)
Astrobiology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering research on the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life across the universe, just published a research paper titled "Transport-Induced Spatial Patterns of Sulfur Isotopes (δ34S) as Biosignatures" by a group of researchers at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Texas at El Paso, and Rice University. The lead author is Dr. Muammar Mansor. The researchers analyzed sample sites in the Frasassi Caves, Italy (Figure 1) and used Energy2D to simulate the effects of convection and diffusion on the chemical deposition processes (Figure 2). According to the paper, the results of the deposition simulated using Energy2D are consistent with the data collected from the cave sites, suggesting the importance of the effect of natural convection.

This is the second paper that uses Energy2D in astrobiology research (and the 16th published paper that used Energy2D in scientific research to simulate a natural or man-made system). In the first paper, Energy2D was used to simulate the thermal conditions for the origin of life. Once again, the publication of this paper provides fresh evidence for the broader impacts of our work.

Lights, camera, action: A video that introduces the NGSS practice of scientific argumentation

Following the recommendation to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) science and engineering practices in their classrooms, schools across the country are looking for ways to integrate scientific argumentation into their curriculum. Since 2012 the High-Adventure Science project in collaboration with National Geographic Education has offered free online modules for Earth and space science topics—including climate change, freshwater availability, the future of energy sources, air quality, land management, and the search for life in the universe—that include multiple opportunities for students to engage in argument from evidence.

Over 67,000 teachers and students across the globe have used High-Adventure Science modules. Based on teacher feedback, classroom observations, and analysis of student data, we have learned that when students engage in argumentation from data and model-based evidence, they need a lot of support on how to write a convincing argument.

Last year, we added an introductory activity to each module where students learn about the component parts of a scientific argument before they are asked to write one. In this highly scaffolded task, students see written examples of a claim and explanation and learn about uncertainty in scientific data and how to express this uncertainty. In High-Adventure Science, argumentation takes a special form, including a multiple-choice structured claim, open-ended explanation, five-point Likert scale uncertainty rating, and uncertainty rationale.

In this introductory activity, students learn about the components of a good explanation.

Even with this new activity, some students still struggled, so we recently created an animated video to introduce the scientific practice of developing an argument. We start by helping students identify the difference between a scientific argument and so-called “arguments” they may have with their friends (e.g., arguing about favorite ice cream flavors!), and making the distinction between claims backed by evidence and opinion. The goal is to introduce students to scientific arguments in a fun and relatable way and to make the terminology and process of scientific argumentation less daunting.

We’re piloting the video in our Will there be enough fresh water? module for select students. We’re looking forward to student and teacher feedback and may revise the video based on their comments. We want everyone to be able to engage in the critical practice of arguing from evidence.

We welcome your comments about our video, as well as your challenges and successes with incorporating the NGSS practice of engaging in argument from evidence.